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Monday, April 9, 2012

Beastly Things, by Donna Leon (hardcover, $25)

Let's hear what Guido Brunetti had for lunch. How about dinner? What kinds of pastries does he get with his coffee? What are the stops for the vaporetto?  Let's chastise Pucetti for hacking into databases. Wow! Spring flowers on Signorina Elettra's desk. Let's go to a shoe store!

Oh, the mystery. Let's see, I'm almost to page 100 and there hasn't been too much about the victim, other than nobody knows who he is. He was found in the water but died of exsanguination, not drowning. Let's get back to the shoe shopping. And, finally, that actually has something to do with the dead man. Although quite a lot of the remaining two-thirds of the book still is not really about the murder but about life in Venice and the philosophy of that life, Leon finally rachets up the mystery.

More obviously in this book than most, Leon's stories are about Guido, his family, and his colleagues as people, not as part of the police machinery. The mystery part is almost incidental. We tune in to get an insider's glimpse of life in one of the most fascinating places on earth, Venice. We read about the succulent dishes Paola Brunetti effortlessly whips up. We hear about Elettra's latest extralegal activities and cleverness.

On the darker side, Leon brings to our attention that all is not heavenly in this earthly paradise. Venetian justice is relative. That is, if your relative holds a title or a position of power, then justice may be more lenient. Corruption, venality, back-scratching, these are all facts of Italian life. Side-stepping the politics and family connections is more harrowing than side-stepping patties in a field packed with cows.

Speaking of cows … Andrea Nava is a veterinarian who has taken a second job as an inspector in a slaughterhouse. It is the unfortunate Andrea Nava who turns out to be the victim found in the canal. Could his new work have had something to do with his murder?

This is a book for Donna Leon fans. It effusively celebrates Guido's sensitivity, Paola's indefatigability, and Elettra's miraculous and convenient sophistication with computers and databases. The mystery, cosi va il mondo, is a little on the watery (ahem!) side.

Donna Leon is an American who has lived in Venice for a quarter of a century. At last report, she had not authorized translation of her books into Italian. I don't know whether this is to protect her privacy or elude any criticism of an unfair portrayal of a city she obviously loves and holds in great regard.

These are a couple of excerpts from an interview of Donna Leon that you can find on the Penguin website:
Italians aren't all that different from the rest of us, save that they feel less guilt about the impulse to have fun.
 [Venice] is believed to be romantic, mysterious, faintly sinister, when in truth it is a tiny provincial town that happens to be extraordinarily beautiful in almost every angle but which is now buried under a wave of tourism that makes daily life at times insupportable.
Perhaps Leon is faintly embarrassed by how successful her books have been and how she herself may be the cause of a tiny wave of tourism to the sites described in her books. In fact, her fans have popularized two adjunctive works, a cookbook and a guidebook, related to Guido Brunetti's fictional travels and gustatory excitations.

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